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Once Upon a Time in Iraq

July 25, 2020

The BBC’s Once Upon a Time in Iraq is one of the most painful documentary series I’ve seen in ages. I’ve only viewed the first two episodes, but I already know from having followed events in Iraq since 2003 that the remaining ones will be equally heartbreaking.

Sometime you watch a documentary about a particular person or family that’s hard to watch. But repeat the pain, the suffering and the remorse a hundred times, and you witness the story of Iraq.

It’s particularly painful for me because I originally supported the war. I thought that the Middle East without Saddam Hussein would be a safer and happier place. Not so much because of his weapons of mass destruction, which were the false pretext for the war, but because of his casual expenditure of the lives of his people in wars against Iran, Kuwait, his brutal treatment of Kurdish Iraqis in Halabja (above) and his suppression of the Shia uprising in 1991. Not only that, but because of his intolerance of any form of dissent and his methods of dealing with it.

Because I supported it, I feel responsible, even though I was horrified at the time by mistakes made by the coalition authorities after the invasion. Many of those mistakes were immediately obvious, particularly the decisions by Paul Bremer to disband the armed forces and purge the civil service of Baath Party members, which left hundreds of thousands out of work, a state without institutions and ample supplies of weapons and ammunition with which the disenfranchised were able to mount an insurgency.

The model Bremer used, and clearly endorsed by the Bush administration, was based on the de-Nazification of Germany after World War 2. But there were two key differences. The victorious allies didn’t strip out Germany’s entire administrative apparatus, and reconstruction was far easier because the occupying forces were on a similar cultural plane to the defeated population.

In Iraq, on the other hand, US and British forces on the ground knew little of the culture, the traditions and the taboos of the locals. In many cases they didn’t care to know their new subjects better. The result was resentment, which led to insurgency, which led to ruthless counter-insurgency tactics which further amplified the resentment. Exacerbated by a failure to restore the country’s infrastructure even to a basic level, conditions in Iraq led many people who were glad to see the end of Saddam actively to try and force the end of the occupation.

I’ve read several books about Iraq after the war of 2003, but none of them prepare you for the interviews with the witnesses, participants and victims of the subsequent events. They are truly harrowing.

I haven’t watched the remaining episodes yet because I feel the need for time to reflect before watching the next one. There are no new revelations – to me at least – because what happened was obvious at the time to those who took the trouble to look.

But I do feel a sense of deep shame that, regardless of the political reasons for the invasion, we paid so little attention to what might happen next. As a result we ruined several generations of Iraqis and started a chain of events that have played a large part in suffering across the region.

To understand how and why we got to where we are today, you could do much worse than to read Kim Ghattas’s Black Wave, which explores the consequences of key events in 1979. I reviewed the book earlier this year. Although the Iraq War was only a stepping stone in that progression, it was an apocalypse for those who lived through it.

Once Upon a Time in Iraq brings to life those violent events to which we paid so little attention – car bombs, IEDs, kidnapping, murder – because we were so preoccupied with acts of violence at home that were far less frequent and far smaller in scale than those that were taking place on the streets of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. Whereas we knew the names of each of the victims of attacks in London and Manchester, the dead of Baghdad were nameless, and therefore seemingly less significant in our eyes.

Like Ken Burns’s series on the Vietnam War, this series reminds us of the psychological damage done to those who survived. But Vietnam is over, whereas Iraq and its people are still suffering, seventeen years on.

So too are the people of Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Libya, Egypt and, though it’s not fashionable to say so, Iran.

Whatever you think of the motivation of Western nations that have intervened in one way or another in the Middle East since the end of World War 2, whether through good intentions or “to keep the oil”, Once Upon A Time in Iraq will serve to remind you of the cost to the people of the region.

Western powers are not solely responsible for the mess. The region’s leaders have also not served their people well.

Should we be ashamed? That’s for you to decide. I can only say that the Middle East is full of bright, often idealistic, creative and warm people for whom I have great affection.

And yes, I’m ashamed.

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